The Kagame paradox: Can there be progress without freedom?

by | September 18, 2017 1:15 am

I read the Financial Times’ recent interview with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, with keen interest. The interview, conducted on the eve of his inauguration for a third term on 18 August, was published in the paper’s 28 August edition, appropriately in its “Big Read” section. It was, indeed, a big and interesting read! Kagame is Africa’s most celebrated leader for his achievements, and yet one of its most vilified for his alleged human rights abuses and political intolerance. This paradox came through strongly in the FT interview, and it’s my focus here, for it raises the question: Is freedom an acceptable trade-off for progress?
But let’s start with the achievements of this enigmatic leader. The 1994 genocide, in which the majority Hutus killed nearly 1 million minority Tutsis, reminded the world of two previous events in history. The first was the Holocaust, when Hitler’s Nazi army massacred nearly 6 million Jewsduring the Second World War (WWII). The second was the physical and economic devastation of Europe after WWII. But just as Germany, particularly after the reunification of the East and the West in 1990, is now a far cry from the socially divided nationof the 1940s, some would argue that Rwanda too has moved away from its ethnically fractious past, thanks to Kagame’s singular nation-building efforts.
Similarly, on development and reconstruction, one could also say that while it took the Marshall Plan and American leadership to get a devastated Europe back on its feet, it has taken an exceptional leader, Kagame, albeit with Western aid, to reconstruct a war-ravaged Rwanda. The economy has grown at an average annual rate of 8% over the past ten years. Poverty and inequality have fallen, so has child and maternal mortality. Rwanda is also a magnet for tourists and foreign investors, which reflects its position as the second best place to do business in Africa, after Mauritius, according to the 2017 World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
In 2013, I came to Nigeria and, while lamenting the decrepit state of Murtala Muhammed International Airport, glibly said to a corporate executive, “Even Rwanda doesn’t have such an airport”. He stared at me and asked: “Have you been to Rwanda?” I said, “No”. Then he said, “Visit Rwanda and you’ll be amazed how different it is from Nigeria: it’s a beautiful place”. I still haven’t visited Rwanda, but the reports I have read about its state of the art infrastructure – the smart new roads, fibre-optic networks, the $300m convention centre, the $800m airport etc – suggest a great effort to reconstruct a country that was once a byword for a development backwater, a basket case!
Singapore is often described as a country where everything works. Rwanda seems to have that reputation in Africa. Indeed, according to the FT, Rwanda is “Africa’s most orderly and disciplined society”, with a “clockwork system”. As someone put it, “The government is an extremely serious bunch of technocrats, obsessed with collecting data, setting performance targets and fine-tuning policies”. This is in part an enduring legacy of Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister. After he left office in 2007, Blair set up the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) to help address Africa’s governance challenges. Rwanda was where the AGI began its work in 2008, with teams of experts helping to create systems and structures for the government. Rwanda has obviously imbibed the culture of “deliverology” that Tony Blair’s government popularised through his policy guru, Michael Barber.
What’s clear from the above is that President Kagame is a visionary and technocratic leader, who is running a technocratic government that is deliveringeffective results. But the question is: at what cost? Well, critics would say at the cost of personal and political freedoms. Kagame may be a technocratic leader, but he is also an autocratic one, brooking no civil dissent or political opposition; allegedly killing opponents, stifling political debate and running a police state.
Following his inauguration for a third term of seven years earlier this month, Kagame would, by 2024, when that term ends, have been in office for 20 years. Yet thanks to the constitutional changes he forced through, he could theoretically stay in office, subject to elections, until 2034. Leaving aside the fact that it’s undemocratic for an incumbent president to change the constitution to elongate his tenure, multiple terms of office are illegitimate without robust multi-party system and credible elections.
Yet President Kagame has just won an election with 98.7% of the vote, after banning most of his opponents and running against a few little known candidates. Kagame poo-pooed the idea of a liberal democracy, saying “I’m not British, I am not American, I’m not French. Whatever thing they practise, that’s their business. I am an African. I am a Rwandese”. This is the usual “African solutions to African problems” defence that African leaders frequently use to pushback on criticisms of their undemocratic behaviours by the West. But is it African for a leader to stifle political debate, kill or exilehis political opponents and effectively create a dominant party state that allows him to rule in perpetuity?
Last week, I wrote about China’s political and ideological influence in Africa. President Kagame is following China’s development model, which says that democracy, human rights and the rule of law do not no matter, and that political authoritarianism can be justified, as long as there is “progress”. As the Economist magazine once wrote, “China’s economic progress is cited by statists, protectionists, and thugs alike to ‘prove’ that keeping the state’s grip on companies, trade, and political freedoms need not stop a country growing by 8%-plus a year”. Indeed, the goals of progress, nation-building and social engineering are being used to justify a police state in Rwanda. A Rwandese told the FT, “We are controlled in all aspects of our lives”, adding “People fear the president more than they fear God”.
In his book, Civilisation, the historian Niall Ferguson asked: “What could go wrong for the ascending Chinese dragon?” Well, sadly, some of the things that Ferguson identified are exactly what could go wrong for Rwanda. One is social unrest. Rwanda is still poor, with per capita income of a meagre $720 and still ranked 159th on the UN Human Development index. A third of the country’s budget comes from aid, and its economy, which suffers from huge trade deficits, earns virtually no foreign exchange from exports. If the economy goes awry, with poverty and inequality rising, the president’s iron-grip on society may not stop social unrest. Secondly, assuming, on the contrary, that the economy continues to grow, and the middle-class grows with it, history tells us that a rising middle class is a bulwark against political authoritarianism as they are likely to demand a bigger political say. Yet, if the president’s authoritarianism triggers social and political crises, well, that would damage the economy, which is based on the sensitive tourism and events sector.
The third scenario is even more troubling. President Kagame is suppressing ethnic identity is Rwanda, forbidding Rwandese from identifying themselves as either Hutu or Tutsi. But pretending that ethnicity doesn’t exist, when the president and many of the country’s prominent leaders are Tutsis, from the minority tribe, while a lot of prominent Hutus are in exile and living in fear, may simply store up problem for the future. As the FT puts it in the interview, the risk is that Kagame might be Rwanda’s equivalent of General Josip Tito, whose firm grip kept Yugoslavia together only for the country to fall apart after his demise.
Rwanda needs a Mandela who can recognise the country’s differences and build consensus to engender unity in diversity, not a Tito who imposes a forced unity that can’t last. Furthermore, as Aristotle said, politics is about the actualisation of human flourishing. Maslow also ends his hierarchy of human needs with self-actualisation. So, you can’t have progress without personal and political freedoms. Progress without freedom and happiness is a misnomer! Good luck to Rwanda!


Olu Fasan